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What to know about volunteer vacations

by Staff

Christopher McGuire will never forget how medical volunteers in Zambia saved a dying man who had leprosy.

The volunteers — doctors, dentists and nurses — were on a trip organized by McGuire’s nonprofit, HALO Missions, which provides healthcare to communities in countries like El Salvador, Ghana and Argentina.

“I hunted for days for the medicine to save him,” recounted McGuire, an attorney from Bayport. “We had to go from village to village to find medicine to cure his disease. … That was a life that we totally changed.”

Stories like McGuire’s have fueled the popularity of volunteer vacations for decades. Travelers envision time off experiencing a different culture while using their muscle and skills in hopes of making a difference. In addition to medical missions, volunteers can build housing on Native American reservations in the United States, monitor wildlife or help collect evidence of climate change.

Volunteers generally pay their own way, with fees covering travel, food and lodging.

Anyone considering this kind of travel should be aware that the volunteer vacation industry, also known as voluntourism, is unregulated, so be sure to do your research before signing on with any group. Concerns have also been raised about volunteers working with children overseas, with a United Nations expert on child exploitation calling this past October for measures that prohibit the use of unskilled and untrained volunteers in childcare institutions and facilities. (HALO Missions, a 501(c)(3) charity, has provided medical care to children as well as adults.)

But for nonprofits such as the Maryland-based American Hiking Society, an advocacy group, volunteers have been crucial to furthering its mission.

Led by experts, crews of six to 15 people spend up to one week maintaining trails and restoring native plants. Volunteers can visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, Alaska’s fjords and the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state, where the ocean vistas can include pods of orca whales.

Bethpage native Maggie Peikon, communications manager for the hiking society, suggests travelers think about the type of experience they want and where they want to go.

“Do you want to see wildlife? Experience a landscape vastly different from where you live? Are you interested in seeing historical sights or specific landmarks?” she asked. “It’s helpful to choose a place that interests you so that you can explore and enjoy all that the area has to offer in your free time.”


Before heading off on a volunteer vacation, experts offer the following advice for an ethical trip:


If traveling overseas, volunteers should check the U.S. State Department for travel advisories; determine whether there is a local emergency contact; and ask whether transportation is provided to and from the airport. 


U.S. State Department tips for prospective volunteers:


Charity Navigator, which rates 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations:


Travel costs vary for each trip. As an example, volunteers paid $3,000 for a HALO Missions trip to Zambia.

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